Some chalk talk on the 86th annual Oscar tournament.
Winner: Dallas Buyers Club
Wild Card: 12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave has all the ingredients for best picture pie; it’s a deep-pocketed period piece that forces painful retrospection of our own harsh and often bloody societal truths. The palpable heft never waivers and evokes visceral reactions to the unimaginable evils depicted, all while looking like a series of history book photos. Not those Clipartsy factoid boxes chucked to the side, those beautiful full-page, full-color, lose-your-spot-in-the-chapter murals. It’s safe to say the tasks at hand were more than accomplished, and John Ridley will almost definitely win best adapted screenplay. But there’s an x-factor to the Buyers Club committee that hasn’t been solved for. Maybe they’re born with it, maybe it’s Matthew. This one is taking it.
Little films with giant ambition like Her and Nebraska might still be a long way away from the Big O, but the recognition is nice. They were my top picks of the pack by a mile, with Gravity at the bottom by two.
Serial film pee-yewer Armond White (God rest his soul) summed up his thoughts with: “[Alfonso] Cuaron plays with philosophy in a shallow, juvenile way, the same as he misuses technology—he even throws in a 3D teardrop. His teasing, tormenting style is just green-screen busyness; though set in space, Cuaron’s Earth-bound “Esperanza” in Gravity could be anywhere, nowhere.”
Yeah. The space thriller’s technical achievements are mighty and the team deserves many badges of Oscar honor; I’ve tried and failed to understand how so many people wound up in their corner. Film of the year revelry continues and it’s unsettling. (Though frankly, I don’t think even the most influential Academy lobbyists have the clout to silence the Twitter echoes of space authority Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose live-tweeting of his Gravity experience all but obliterated any realistic hopes of contention in most of the big fish categories.) Gravity will not win best picture; Sandra Bullock will not win best actress. Though the certainty ends there.
Maybe the Academy will throw a collective middle finger to the world and tap The Wolf of Wall Street, at which point thousands of expired Quaaludes will be mercifully released from the Dolby ceiling, seeking to dull the A-listers’ pain of missing True Detective's penultimate episode. Maybe.
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Winner: Matthew McConaughey
Wild Card: Chiwetel Ejiofor
DBC with two big ones in a row? Yes. The word “transformation” sees a lot of playing time in these conversations, and while Christian Bale’s rollercoaster belly is a force to be reckoned with, there are few words more appropriate for describing the path to an age now known as “The McConaissance.” His portrayal of the layered HIV lonestar Ron Woodroof is inspiring as it is heartbreaking, and as a staunch supporter of the Give Leo a Statue movement, saying justice will not have been served should Matthew McConaughey fall to him, or any of his fellow nominees, is not easy.
As for the wild card, after typing “Bruce Dern” and deleting, typing “Chiwetel Ejiofor” and deleting, typing “Bruce Dern” and deleting, typing “Shia LaBeouf” and deleting, I settled on Steve McQueen’s leading man. Here’s why: I can’t bring myself to recognize the chance of Nebraska walking away empty handed, and I’m feeling much better about June Squibb’s standing for best supporting actress than her on-screen husband’s. This is a game of strategy, after all, and Ejiofor was a powerhouse.
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Winner: Cate Blanchett
Wild Card: The Woody Allen curveball
This performance will be celebrated by fans and actors alike for years to come. Watching her unravel the already loose stitches of this delusional, tragic character was a rare treat. She’s absolutely fascinating. Judi Dench was a doll and seeing Amy Adams venture into bombshellism was fun, but this is no contest. No contest, assuming the Academy doesn’t decide to either condemn Woody, reward Dylan or reprimand the public peanut gallery for that Thing. Useless reopening the what and why; there are plenty of think pieces from people obviously far more equipped/knowledgeable/qualified to speak on that subject than I.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Winner: Michael Fassbender
Wild Card: Jared Leto
Maybe this pick is idealistic; Leto is the clear favorite in this category and to say it’s undeserved would be a stretch. He was committed, and it showed. But there’s been too little talk about the lack of inhibition, the sheer ferocity with which Fassbender explored every angle available to him in his role as the turbulent plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave. The fact he was able to draw the slightest amount of sympathy through the corners of his face, even as he mercilessly flayed the skin off a defenseless girl’s back, should not be forgotten come Oscar night.
Though a perfectly adequate accessory to DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort in Wolf (the Quaalude/lobby/kitchen sequence carved its own class of bizarre genius), Jonah Hill is outright outmatched.
Admittedly, if it were left to blind personal preference, Bradley Cooper and his hair curlers get the win. But there are rules.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Winner: June Squibb
Wild Card: Lupita Nyong’o, Jared Leto
There are a couple newbies this year in Squibb and Nyong’o, both of whom have enjoyed favorable positioning in this group. Sally Hawkins also falls into that category since this is her first Academy Award nomination, but as delightful as she was, she may have fallen victim to Blanchett’s performance so ruthlessly overpowering everyone else’s. The woman was a tyrant. Come the final scene on the park bench, I couldn’t have listed another actor in the movie. Had there even been any? Why does Sally Field look so young? That sort of thing.
Squibb gave the performance of a lifetime in Nebraska as Kate Grant, Woody Grant’s (Bruce Dern) lovably raucous wife. The winds seem to be headed in the direction of Ol’ Kate, though the Kenyan beauty has a chance to make a late break as she’s seen a recent push through the press after her Vanity Fair spread. And that dress.
For a minute, the plucky bebosomed J. Law would have made sense, and even now people would hardly be mad about it. But nothing would make me happier if, in an unprecedented character acting demonstration, J. Let shows up at Dolby Theatre draped in a “it’s cranberry mocha” gown and six-inch stilettos. If so, wipe the ballots and give that girl a statue.
Best Original Screenplay
Winner: American Hustle
Wild Card: Her
A universe of constants would see American Hustle taking home best original screenplay for the same reasons 12 Years takes best picture. Both are far from undeserved, and probably the most correct choice. Bear in mind strategies; Hustle hasn’t seen much playing time in these final rounds, and chances are low the cuddly con outfit leaves with nothing. Appropriately, they’ll collect where they can.
Blue Jasmine won’t win either because there are rules.
Nebraska was my favorite film of the year. Bob Nelson’s mastery of plot chemistry and care to detail in the writing was superior to both Hustle and Her — not significantly, but enough to merit mention. Though if we’re taking the category at its most literal definition, should Hustle fall, Spike Jonze’s futuristic affairs of the heart will triumph over Alex Payne’s homey black-and-white. Originality and relevancy is a combination rarely done well and should be rewarded when blended as effortlessly as in Her.
Wild Card: 12 Years a Slave
This selection is with a heavy heart. We’ve made some clean dodges but the influential powers of Gravity run far and wide. Cuaron and Co. will rule most of the technical categories without much divide, though the much-anticipated battle over the Best Sound Mixer and Best Sound Editor crowns is a nail-biter this year with Tom Hanks’ sea saga coming in strong as well. But reigning supreme over a digital empire of dirt is not part of the plan.
Space is the final frontier, calling man to boldly go where no man has gone before, explore brave new worlds, etc. Best Director is one of the most, if not the most, elusive categories of Award Night. What qualifies as best cinematic direction is nearly indefinable. An unconquered frontier, if you will. Whether the win cites poetic symbolism or a shady advantage, or both, who knows.
The allure of historical firsts in Steve McQueen becoming the first black director to win an Oscar might be enough to topple the Gravity Gargantua, but given the 142 Oscars 12 Years is already likely taking home, best to keep your head out of the stars.
Other Oscar picks of note:
Best Adapted Screenplay:
Winner: 12 Years a Slave
Wild card: The Wolf of Wall Street, Philomena
Long live Philomania.
Wild card: Inside Llewyn Davis
Almost flipped these two, but then I remembered. Rules.
Best Documentary Feature
Winner: The Act of Killing
Wild card: Cutie and the Boxer
Killing has the steam with its groundbreaking concept and heavy global implications. Cutie and the Boxer is just really special.
Best Animated Feature:
Wild card: Frozen
Because of course.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling:
Winner: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
Wild card: Bradley Cooper’s hair curlers!
Best Original Score:
Winner: Saving Mr. Banks
Wild card: Her
Her touts sizable indie cred in the forms of Arcade Fire and Karen O but Mr. Banks is a celebration of the sacred.
Best Original Song:
Winner: Let it Go (Frozen)
Wild card: Everything is Awesome (The Lego Movie)
It will find a way.
Tune in with Ellen at 8:30 p.m. on ABC for the showdown.